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Tween

Spooky (But Not Too Scary!) Books for Middle Grade Readers

by Tom Burns

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Background credit: il67, iStock/Getty Images Plus

As a parent, it can be hard to quantify “scary.” One day, your child is begging you to stop reading The Berenstain Bears in the Dark, and the next, they’re asking you if they’re old enough to watch “The Walking Dead.” Scary gets particularly hard to define in middle school, when kids are perched on that narrow threshold between innocent youth and teenaged indifference.

Is there an appropriate level of scary for middle school? As always, it varies from kid to kid, but there are some writers who seem to have truly tapped into what makes a middle-schooler squirm. Case in point: R.L. Stine, the massively popular creator of the Goosebumps series.

If your middle schooler is ready for for something a little scarier than Room on the Broom, try these spooky titles that should definitely creep them out, but shouldn’t keep them up all night.

  • The Halloween Tree

    by Ray Bradbury, illustrated by Joseph Mugnaini

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    This might be the greatest Halloween book ever written. One of the few children’s books written by Bradbury, Halloween Tree tells the stories of eight young boys who venture out trick-or-treating, but soon find themselves confronted by the foreboding Mr. Moundshroud, who, through his evil machinations, introduces the children to Halloween traditions from around the world. If your kid really likes to be unnerved, this would make a fantastic double feature with Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

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  • A Small Zombie Problem

    by K.G. Campbell

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    August DuPont has always been an outsider. Raised in the Deep South by his Aunt Hydrangea, he’s spent most of his childhood confined to their strange old house — until the day his Aunt Orchid appears and invites him to attend school with his three cousins. But all is not what it seems, and family secrets start unraveling when August is followed home one day by a rather shy zombie. Campbell’s new series is richly textured and brought to life by his trademark illustrations.

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  • The Circus of Stolen Dreams

    by Lorelei Savaryn

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    Andrea desperately wants to forget the night her brother went missing, leaving her family in pieces. So when she stumbles upon a magical dream world called Reverie, she jumps at the chance to escape inside. But this glittering nighttime circus turns dark when Andrea realizes no one can ever leave. The perfect blend of magic, eeriness, and world-building, Savaryn’s debut novel is both delightful and terrifying.

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  • Thirteens

    by Kate Alice Marshall

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    Something isn’t quite right about the town of Eden Eld. Legend has it that every 13 years on Halloween, three 13-year-olds go missing. When Elle, Pip, and Otto start seeing strange things that no one else can – like large black dogs with red eyes – they begin to wonder if the legends are true. Will they be next to disappear? Creepy and suspenseful, Thirteens is a heart-pounding page-turner.

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  • Monstrous Devices

    by Damien Love

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    In this atmospheric, spooky fantasy story, 12-year-old robot-enthusiast Alex is given an antique robot by his grandfather with a simple note: “This one is special.” With that gift, an unexpected chain of events is set in motion and Alex finds himself on an action-packed adventure across Europe with his grandfather, keeping the robot safe, dodging dangerous characters, and dabbling in powerful magic.

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  • The Witches

    by Roald Dahl

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    Roald Dahl’s witchy classic is a must-read for middle grade readers who love to be spooked. A young boy is enthralled by his grandmother’s stories, particularly the ones about witches. Grandmamma is a retired witch hunter, and she warns the boy of their evils. On holiday at a lavish hotel, the boy is confronted by the Grand High Witch herself — and promptly turned in to a mouse. Together, the boy (now mouse) and Grandmamma devise a plan to rid the world of witches once and for all.

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  • The Creakers

    by Tom Fletcher, illustrated by Shane Devries

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    The Creakers has plenty of humor and wackiness for readers who prefer more lighthearted thrills. The story begins with a worldwide disappearance of grownups, and at first, it’s a party! No rules, no school, no vegetables. But Lucy misses her mom, and when she peeks under her bed — inspired by the creaking sounds she always hears down there — she discovers the Creakers, gross creatures who have stolen all the parents. Will Lucy and her friends be able to save the grownups?

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  • Nightmares! Series

    by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller, illustrated by Karl Kwasny

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    Charlie’s nightmares begin after he moves into his new stepmom’s old, creepy house with his dad and little brother, Jack. He tries to avoid sleeping to avoid the nightmares, but, eventually, his eyes close and he drifts into terrible dreams. The nightmares come to life when Jack is kidnapped, and Charlie finds himself on a terrifying mission that takes him into the dream world to save his brother. And so begins this delightful, spooky, oftentimes hilarious series written by actor Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller, with super cool illustrations by Karl Kwasny.

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  • The Haunting of Henry Davis

    by Kathryn Siebel

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    Henry’s the new boy at school, but you might count him as two. You see, quiet loner Henry Davis is haunted by a ghost named Edgar. Barbara Anne wants to help Henry — and Edgar, too — so the unlikely friends embark on a mission to find out who Edgar was, why he’s haunting Henry, and what he needs to move on to the other side. Compulsively readable, this modern ghost story has all the fixings of a great Halloween read.

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  • Where the Woods End

    by Charlotte Salter

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    For slightly older readers ready for some fangs and frights, Where the Woods End is a wildly entertaining ride full of dark fairy-tale elements. In Kestrel’s world, every time a baby is born, so is a Grabber — beasts who stalk their counterpoints throughout their lives, until they finally attack and devour them. Kestrel’s mother is a powerful spell-caster, and she wants Kestrel to use her huntress skills to pick off the Grabbers. But Kestrel’s own Grabber lies in wait, and Kestrel’s mother may be putting her daughter in danger for nefarious reasons.

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  • Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

    by Karen Foxlee

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    A very logical and inquisitive girl, Ophelia doesn’t believe in things that can’t be proven by science. But there are a lot of things she can’t explain about the museum her father works in … like the boy with no name she finds held captive within its walls. Putting her doubts aside, Ophelia decides to help the boy stop the evil Snow Queen who imprisoned him from destroying the world. Reminiscent of “The Snow Queen” fairy tale, this action-packed and suspenseful story is chilling in more ways than one.

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  • The House with a Clock in Its Walls

    by John Bellairs, illustrated by Edward Gorey

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    Ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt is an orphan, and he has no idea what’s in store when he’s sent to live with his eccentric uncle in Michigan. Luckily, Uncle Jonathan — and his charming neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman — welcome Lewis into their lives, which, as it turns out, includes more than a little bit of magic. With a mystery-driven plot, illustrations by Edward Gorey, and the quintessential battle between good and evil, this classic story proves its staying power.

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  • Small Spaces

    by Katherine Arden

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    Kids who are fans of “Stranger Things” can enjoy the same creep factor in this eerie middle grade read. For 11-year-old Ollie, books are an escape and her latest read is quite chilling. Then on a field trip, she notices some strange similarities between the farm they’re visiting and the book, including the gravestones of the very characters she has read about. With spooky scarecrows and haunted woods, Ollie’s favorite form of escape is about to become a real-life nightmare.

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  • Ghost and Bone

    by Andrew Prentice

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    Remember King Midas, who turned everything he touched into gold? Oscar Grimstone has a similar curse — only everything he touches seems to die. But then Oscar discovers he can use the curse on himself and transform from living boy to ghost and back again. When Oscar discovers the city of ghosts, a world he never could’ve imagined — filled with good guys and bad, he’ll have to figure out where he fits among the living and the dead.

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Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2015 and updated in 2020.